When 39 states asked that the alleged war crimes in Ukraine be investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC), strengthened the chances that the perpetrators would one day be held accountable. But will the ICC’s pursuit of justice bring peace to Ukraine? Will the research reduce violence and deter atrocities, or could it make things worse?
The short answer is that no one should expect the ICC to bring peace, resolve the root causes of the conflict in Ukraine, or lead to a complete reduction in violence. You have to manage expectations. The ICC is in the accountability game, not the conflict resolution game, and as my research and book on the subject illustrate, the Court’s effects on peace are often ambivalent. But that doesn’t mean his quest for justice isn’t worth supporting. far from there
Based on what we know about the war in Ukraine, here’s what can and can’t happen.
The ICC and Putin’s existential war
There is no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal.. For decades before the invasion of Russia and the horrors that followed, Putin brazenly made war crimes a central part of his modus operandi. Be it his war in Chechnya in the late 1990s, his fabricated conflict in Georgia in 2008 (which is also under investigation by the ICC), his sadistic friendship with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and his use of chemical weapons against civilians , or his annexation of Crimea and the war of deadly power in eastern Ukraine, there is ample evidence that Putin cares little for human life, Ukrainian, Russian or otherwise.
At the same time, there are signs that the war in Ukraine has become existential for the Russian leader. With states crafting new sanctions day by day, companies that abandon their operations in the country and landslide votes By condemning his actions in the United Nations General Assembly, Putin is severely isolated. It is no longer implausible that elites, who do not want to go down with a sinking ship, would try to take power from him. It is quite possible that Putin feels that he must “win” or at least appear to win the war in Ukraine in order to survive.
Under these conditions, it is unlikely that Putin is losing sleep over the ICC investigation. To date, he has not responded to the Court’s intervention in Ukraine and it is likely to be of minor importance to him given the stakes in the conflict that it started.
Any sustainable peace with Putin is not on the table. Putin is not interested and neither are members of the international community. It is also unclear how the war in Ukraine, or the threat of others in the future, could end Putin in power. But if the ICC’s intervention adds to Putin’s isolation and he is eventually deposed, perhaps the Court could contribute to peace.
But there are many “ifs” that would have to be fulfilled: if regime change occurs, if whoever assumes power is no worse than Putin, and if Russia itself does not collapse into civil conflict as a result, then perhaps one could say that the ICC helped bring about greater regional peace.
On a more optimistic note, some Russian officials and their superiors may be concerned about ICC scrutiny. If that is the case, the Court’s investigation could deter them from committing further atrocities. Importantly, the ICC chief prosecutor already has a team of investigators in Ukraine. This is a significant change for the Court, which has typically been risk averse and has avoided sending its investigators into situations of active hostilities. With investigators on the ground, some belligerents might think twice.
Ukraine’s interest in the ICC
On the Ukrainian side, there is more reason to believe that the ICC investigation could affect kyiv’s behavior and deter Ukrainian soldiers from committing atrocities.
Unlike Russia, the Ukrainian authorities have a clear interest in remaining on the “good side” of the ICC and of international humanitarian law in general. The ICC has been examining alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine since 2014, at the behest of kyiv. With an investigation now open and active, the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will want to ensure that it is biased against the Russian regime.
Ukrainian officials have gone to great lengths to emphasize that international law is on their side. If his army starts committing widespread atrocities, such as retaliatory killings of detained Russian soldiers or of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, that prized position would quickly evaporate. Practicing moderation is in your interest.
As it stands, the war narrative is heavily in favor of kyiv. Ukraine is (rightly) seen as a victim of Russian aggression. Zelenskyy and his military leaders would do well to keep it that way by avoiding atrocities, especially with ICC investigators watching closely.
Research still worth supporting
Despite common rhetoric that “no peace without justice”, it is often unclear what effect war crimes investigations and prosecutions have on peace. But that is no reason to drop support for the ICC and its goal of achieving a modicum of accountability for the victims of mass atrocities.
It would be cruel to say that because the ICC is not a panacea, it should not strive to seek justice. As the Chief Prosecutor of the Court, Karim Khan, has said, set: “If we don’t try, we have no chance. At least if we try, maybe we can turn the tide on accountability in a positive and meaningful way.”
While the Court will not resolve the war or bring about peace in Ukraine, it is worth remembering: it is the citizens of Ukraine who have demanded justice and accountability. For that reason, above all others, the ICC investigation is worth supporting.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.